By Don Simpson | February 1, 2012
It seems as though films that portray characters who do not abide by vanilla heterosexual behavior in favorable and sympathetic perspectives are a dime a dozen these days. All of these films share a very similar message — we need to be honest about our sexuality, first and foremost with our lovers. Writer-director Eric Schaeffer’s After Fall, Winter is no different and that is not such a bad thing. I think After Fall, Winter communicates quite clearly a message that needs to be pounded repeatedly through many puritanical Americans’ thick skulls.
What I enjoy most about After Fall, Winter — well, besides Lizzie Brocheré (Sleepless Night) whom I have loved ever since her amazing performance in Karin Albou’s The Wedding Song (2009) — is the way that Schaeffer toys with conventional gender roles. Sophie is mostly masculine. She is strong, blunt, and has sex when she wants it, but she shies away from intimate conversations. Michael is mostly feminine. He is a fragile romantic and quick to fall in love; he loves intimate conversations, and — depending on who you ask — he might be described as open and honest.
Don Simpson: One aspect of After Fall, Winter that really fascinates me is the way that Sophie and Michael are defined by specific personality traits and how those traits are essentially used to bring the two characters together…
Eric Schaeffer: Its sort of like, water seeks its own level — that’s the short answer. Call it a spiritual belief, call it a psychological belief, but it seems like within some degree of water level you find who is compatible. In that one talk at the kitchen table when Michael says to Sophie point blankly, do you think people find other broken people to help fit in as a puzzle piece, to fix whatever damage they have, and they can somehow comfort or fix the damage in the other person? Sophie says that she doesn’t believe that, but I sort of do believe that. I believe that we are seeking something — our parents if you are a Freudian — to gain out of a loving relationship. Even psychologically, teacher heal thyself. Teachers take jobs in the fields that they need to be taught the most in. That makes sense to me philosophically as an overarching way that humans work in the world. So, when a guy who has self-hatred runs into a woman who hates men, then that could make a perfect fit. That is a very simplistic way to put it; but clearly Sophie has tremendous ambivalence about BDSM, and he has ambivalence about self-love and being upset about life in his mid-40s. The character of Michael was born out of my personal experience, just because most writers tend to write from personal experience — most of them don’t play themselves. I am not fully Michael, I am a much more honest person. I would never lie when confronted, like Michael does when confronted by Sophie in the bed scene. I don’t lie about things like that, but Michael does for a big plot point. Sophie was based on one relationship I had. Some of Sophie’s most hurtful lines come straight from real life, such as the line “if you were ten pounds thinner I would have blown you by now.” The sexual talk was all straight out of my relationship with that woman. So I fashioned Sophie’s sadistic side from this one woman writer whom I knew. The rest of her personality — I just write intuitively. Plot points I have to think up and strategize, but in terms of how characters interact, I just let them talk. I constructed Sophie as a hospice worker because I wanted to show the complexity of her character and her emotional life being one that has a great capacity for love and taking care of people. Often BDSM can be the flip coin of that, because some men feel taken care of by being smacked in the face by a woman.
DS: I found that duality very interesting, that Sophie could form this intimate emotional attachment to a 13-year old girl who is dying of cancer yet at the same time be a dominatrix. Both careers seem so opposite, but they each seem so natural for Sophie.
ES: Sophie has fashioned a life where she has no chance for intimacy. Well, she has tremendous intimacy that cannot go past a certain threshold. She is taking care of people who are going to die, which I imagine is one of the most intimate situations a person can be in — holding the hand of someone during their last breath. Then, she creates this situation in BDSM — that is a very intimate job, especially if you are doing more edgier play such as strangling people or hitting people, because you could injure them or kill them. So Sophie has to be highly present and, in a way, highly considerate and caring of her clients. People don’t usually get that. They just see the obvious, which is a woman smacking a man very hard in the face. In fact, unlike any other type of sex worker — prostitute, massage girl — who can be completely detached from their work, a dominatrix needs to be completely focused and present. Those people who meditate and strive to be present in their lives know that is a very provocative and wonderful situation to have someone very present with you. But… It ends after an hour and the dominatrix gets paid.
DS: The characters also play transposed gender roles. Sophie is very strong and blunt, she has sex whenever she wants it, and she shies away from intimate conversation — those tend to be very traditional masculine traits. Michael has more traditional feminine traits… He is a fragile romantic who is quick to fall in love, and he longs for intimate conversations.
ES: I think that is a very astute observation on your part. I am trying to blow up the archetypal gender roles for years. It is confusing to be a man. Many women would like for you to be a “gentleman” in the old school way — hold the door, buy flowers, etc — but they would also like for you to be more emotionally open to talking; but some women find that as a weakness. It is all over the place right now. Its all just preference, man. Don’t judge other people and find people who fit for you. Most men are much more complex than the historical stereotype. We are not just macho. I am as macho as they come. Sunday is about watching football, and that is going to trump any date with any woman. I am going to defend my woman on the street. But I also like intimate conversations which is why most of my close friends are female because they are more accepting and interested in talking like that. When you say Sophie is playing the man because she can have detached sex and be strong — that’s a little sad, even in knowing you don’t really think that way, but that is your quick version of getting that point across. How sad is that? And women are fragile romantics who like intimate conversations? That is what is pounded into our brains. I find that I challenge more people by being a straight man who has what are socially-defined to be female characteristics then if I was just a gay man. People like their little compartments. Obviously gays still have a tremendous amount of bigotry against them, but they are better understood than a straight man who wants to be fucked in the ass with a strap on by a sexy woman. That just fucks everybody up.
DS: And that brings up another prominent theme in After Fall, Winter which is sexuality. I cannot think of any other films that treat BDSM as “normal” sexual behavior.
ES: I have always said to people who have accused me of being “unique” or “way off the chart” in terms of sexuality, there is a multi-billion dollar industry of trannie porn, trannie prostitution, BDSM porn, BDSM hired pro-doms… I don’t have a billion dollars. I am not the only one interested in this stuff. It is a BIG business. A dominatrix generally costs between $200-500/hour. For many people, $500 is a weekly salary. Who is buying these services? These are straight men. Gay men want a real male penis in them, they don’t want a woman with a fake plastic penis. Certainly some bi-sexual men, and gay women might… but forget the strap on part of it, there are many fetishes and kicks that people are paying for. Clearly there are millions of people who are into this stuff, yet it seems to be the new major stigma. Homosexuality doesn’t win that award anymore. Now, if you are in the transgender community or the straight male BDSM community, these are the new pariahs. You have always seen some bondage stuff in film and television, but generally it is shown comically and over-the-top. You rarely see it discussed “normally” or getting into the psychology of what is interesting about it in a thoughtful mature way. I know a lot of pro-dom’s and their clients are doctors, lawyers, advertising executives, college students; most are straight and terrified to talk with their girlfriends or wives about what they might really like. Who knows? Maybe they would be into it. I submit that everyone has a scale. One man’s wearing a diaper fetish is another man’s getting it with a strap on. This is Oedipal 101. What do babies do with feces? They play with it and try to put it in their mouth, but probably most people would agree that that most disgusting fetish would be having to do with feces. But if you want to break it down, this is the earliest developmental mommy-baby stuff that there is. It is confusing to people. The box of a straight man who wants to lick women’s feet is “weird.” Generally everybody has something on the scale of 1-10 that is not just the missionary position with the lights off.
DS: Was After Fall, Winter purposefully set in Europe — France in particular — because of their more open attitude towards sexuality?
ES: I wanted to make After Fall, Winter in France first of all because it really works with the quartet. This is the second film — the first is Fall, and Fall has to do with Paris and it made sense for this storyline to be set in Paris. Secondly, I do think there would be more forgiveness of the sexual context because Europeans are more understanding and relaxed about human sexuality. Thirdly, I thought by making this film in Europe and releasing it there would be a way to get critics — who for some reason can’t just watch my films and leave aside their perception of me as a person and my ego from the actual film that I made — to open their eyes because maybe they’ll see it in a new way.
DS: Who is your perceived audience?
ES: I just make movies. Distributors ask me, marketing people ask me, and I say my audience is people who like good movies. I understand the importance of marketing a film, I’m not an idiot. There is a lot going on in this film. There is the beautiful love story, the BDSM stuff is in there… The trailer I cut, I think, does it justice. You get a sense for the danger and sexiness and BDSM, but you don’t quite know what it is about. I figure that the audience in the U.S. would be people who love challenging, edgy, romantic movies. I don’t make films that fit into compartments though. I seem to have developed a style in my body of work, going from different levels of funny (broad to more sophisticated) to real pathos, in the same film and often from scene to scene. That is how life is. You can go from having a profound spiritual experience to a sudden burst of anger then encounter something that is really funny. We are very sophisticated beings who can go through a lot of emotions very quickly. There is that scene in which Sophie rapes the guy on the floor with the broomstick — you think it is a real rape, that he was trying to rape her and she turns the tables on him and rapes him, but then you find out that’s what he wants as part of his session. That is always a big laugh in the theater, people love to learn that they have been tricked. By the time that laugh subsides, Sophie is already in the hospital talking with the dying 13-year old. There are no transitions. There is not some montage of Paris or we don’t watch Sophie ride the subway to the hospital…